by Gail Benzler -
Special to the SGN
Director Cindy L. Abel brings her groundbreaking documentary Breaking Through to the 18th annual Seattle Lesbian & Gay Film Festival. Breaking Through reveals the very personal stories and struggles of LGBT public servants, ranging from city council members to municipal judges to members of Congress, such as former longtime Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank and recently elected U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin.
Abel will appear as a special guest when Breaking Through screens on Wednesday, October 16, at 5 p.m. at the Harvard Exit Theatre. Admission is only $5 - part of SLGFF's Afterschool Special series of films. Visit
www.threedollarbillcinema.org for tickets and more information.
Gail Benzler: Why was it important to make this film?
Cindy L. Abel: Breaking Through was conceived in response to the high number of teens who were taunted because of being Gay or perceived to be and committing suicide. I struggled with coming out 10 years after college - begging God to change me by any means necessary if there was something wrong with me - and the few Gay friends I had told me I'd better stay in the closet if I wanted a good career. I chose to ignore their advice, and though it was challenging, I met Barney Frank shortly after that and his example proved my vision for an open and successful life was, in fact, possible. I served on the Victory Fund board for eight years (two of those as co-chair of the national board), and had been so inspired by the openly LGBT elected officials I met, I wanted to highlight these leaders living authentic and fulfilled lives. It is our hope that Breaking Through will encourage those from all walks of life who are struggling to break through barriers, be proud of who they are, and live authentically.
Benzler: LGBT electeds seem to be gaining office in a diverse range of regions, from the Deep South to safe blue districts. How do you account for this growth nationally?
Abel: A lot of individuals and organizations have done a lot of work in the past 20 plus years. The number one factor in people accepting LGBT people is personally knowing someone who is LGBT. As more people have come out, that acceptance has grown.
One organization has unequivocally played a vital leadership role since its founding in 1991 - the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund. They have one mission and they've been fulfilling it extremely well: elect qualified, openly LGBT candidates to public office. They provide very intense campaign training, fundraising, and technical support and ensure that if they endorse a candidate, that individual has the skills and tools to run a viable campaign. That includes addressing questions of sexual orientation and gender identity in ways that remind voters that while they may be LGBT, they are also involved in the issues that their potential constituents care about.
Tammy Baldwin - who became the first woman from Wisconsin and first openly LGBT non-incumbent to be elected to Congress in 1998 and last year became the first woman from Wisconsin and first openly LGBT non-incumbent to be elected to the U.S. Senate - shares that voters have told her, 'If you can be honest with us about this (sexual orientation, for example), we can trust you to be honest with us about anything.'
Joel Burns, a Fort Worth, Texas, city councilman, believes that being Gay has actually made him a better public servant. 'It has sensitized me to things I wouldn't have been aware of, if I hadn't been part of a minority - it makes me more in tune with a lot of my constituents,' he says.
It's important to remember that while LGBT candidates have been elected in record numbers in the past 10 years, openly LGBT folks hold less than one-tenth of one percent of elected offices in the U.S.
Benzler: Why is it important for LGBT politicians to be out? Does the current political climate play a role in keeping some LGBT politicos closeted?
Abel: Being out often means the difference between passing inclusive legislation and passing anti-Gay legislation. It's often said, 'If you're not at the table, you're likely to be on the menu.'
Just as in any situation, if an openly LGBT person is in the room, the conversation is different. It's much harder for a politician to look at their LGBT colleague and say, 'Sorry, you don't count, I'm voting to prevent you from being treated equally.' Not impossible, but more difficult. For example, there has not been a state that passed marriage equality that didn't have an openly LGBT person in their state legislator.
It's also important because it shows other LGBT folks - and those struggling with any sense of difference or disenfranchisement, even if not LGBT - what is actually possible, regardless of the messages they hear on a regular basis. In Breaking Through, San Diego interim mayor Todd Gloria says, 'If the son of a maid and a gardener can become an elected official in the seventh largest city in the country, the American dream is alive and well.'
Those who are closeted or refuse to answer one way or the other send the message that to be successful, one can't be out. That is totally their right and I wouldn't out them. I would, however, like to ask them how they think their choice impacts others, particularly the young who are desperately looking for role models.
That's why I am so proud of the people who shared their stories with us. Some shared how they struggled as young people and the ways they dealt with their pain. Others shared how they sometimes feel shame from a long time ago creeping up. Kathy Webb, the first openly LGBT elected official in Arkansas, who became the first woman chair of the Joint Budget Committee (one of the most powerful roles in a legislature), explains that on the first day of the session, she felt like she was walking on the moon, going where no one had ever gone before. She revealed, 'When I sat down in a meeting and seats around me were open, I wondered if people wouldn't want to sit next to me because I was a Lesbian. I hadn't thought things like that in years!' She had colleagues tell her she was going to Hell, and Georgia State Rep. Karla Drenner was asked to take a different elevator by her colleagues in the beginning. Yet many of those same folks have now apologized for their words and behavior.
From President Obama's statements and the fall of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' to recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, Tammy Baldwin being elected senator and Eric Fanning being appointed acting secretary of the U.S. Air Force, the political climate is more accepting of LGBT people than ever in history. As Sen. Baldwin says, 'We can't wait for the day when we have full equality - we have make that day.'
Benzler: Do you have an example of something that inspired you in the film?
Abel: Houston Municipal Court Judge Phyllis Frye, who is the first Transgendered judge in the U.S., told me, 'I've had sorrow, I've had pain ... but I wouldn't change a thing. It's been a wonderful, productive life.' That is a state of mind to which I aspire. She has been to Hell and back several times and yet she embraces all of it, recognizing that if it weren't for all the things she went through, she wouldn't be where she is today: a judge with a wife she married 40 years ago, who's been instrumental in changing attitudes, perceptions, and laws.
For information on Three Dollar Bill Cinema and SLGFF, visit www.threedollarbillcinema.org.
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